Friday, March 29, 2013

Hello, My Name is Sidekick.

In my post a few days ago "Coming in Second", I described the second chapter as a good place to introduce new characters and to show your main character's background through action and dialogue, rather than with a listing of their personal history.

When we left my main character from "Paradise Found", Joe Carrigan's boss had just given him an ultimatum... and was about to give him a partner too. The trouble is, I'm not sure which character to introduce as the partner. I need to show the reader another police officer (who is important later on for what happens to him), and the archangel Michael (who is important later on for what he accomplishes).

The way I see it, I have 2 (okay, maybe 3) ways of presenting this:

  1. Only introduce the police officer as Joe's new partner. Show how Joe and his new partner get along by having dialogue, body language, and perhaps a short listing of each man's major accomplishments on the police force.
    • The weakness in this is that it leaves the introduction of the archangel Michael until later.  While it's fine to introduce stock characters, minor characters, and/or villains later in a book, the sidekick/co-hero ought to receive more attention sooner in the novel.
  2. Leave the other police officer in the background for now, and instead introduce Michael as Joe's new partner.
    • This option has some weaknesses, though, because of the way I'm writing angels. As beings of pure spirit, even if Michael looked human to everyone, he wouldn't be able to physically interact with the world. It's difficult to explain how he manages to get into and out of the squad car without ever opening the door, not to mention the fact that he wouldn't be able to arrest anyone, kick in doors, or help Joe out in a fight. As an over-involved witness, Michael's lack of interaction with the world can be excused or rationalized. As a cop, it would be questioned by the reader too thoroughly and too soon.
  3. Introduce the police officer as Joe's new partner, and have them interview Michael in the same chapter.
    • This option seems to be the best, because it includes both of the new characters. The only danger in the third option is that the chapter could become too lengthy. Long chapters are okay, but only if the pacing is fast enough to keep the reader engaged, but gradual enough to help them catch the character identifiers and plot points.

If I'm going with the third option, I would introduce both new characters like this:

Joe kept his grumbling to a minimum, because the partner with whom the captain had saddled him was a good man, and reliable in his work, if a bit too preoccupied with it. In other words, Detective Aldo "Al" Starek was very similar to Joe, in bearing, experience, and - somewhat - even in appearance. Al's hair was curlier than Joe's, and slightly longer, but they each had the same large, brawler's hands, the same skeptical glare, and the same half-amused smirk. The last two were hazards of the job.

Detective Starek led the way to his desk, saying, "This guy shows up out of nowhere, saying he's got information on the seven murders that happened today."

Joe scoffed. "Only seven? Slow day in paradise, isn't it?"

"That's the thing," Starek claimed, "There have actually only been six, and he started giving his statement before we'd even heard about the fifth. Either he's involved, or--"

"Or he knows someone who is," Joe was able to finish Starek's thought easily. Joe looked at the man who sat on the far side of Starek's desk, trying to size him up before speaking to him.

The uncannily-aware informant was difficult to describe. One moment, Joe looked at him and saw a twenty-something man, with powerful muscles and an alert, darting stare. The next moment, Joe would have sworn the man aged a couple of decades. The powerful muscles were still there, and the stare was just as mobile, but he seemed more confident, as though he'd seen countless military campaigns. Joe thought it was no wonder they released descriptions of suspects with age ranges of twenty years, rather than five.

"Are you seeing the same thing I am?" Joe asked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him, or if the informant was wearing some kind of malfunctioning holographic disguise. He hadn't heard of those existing yet, but he figured he'd be the last to know. Unless it came up during a case, Joe wasn't likely to notice.

"He's a cool one, definitely," Detective Starek asserted, seeming to miss the age fluctuations that were so apparent to Joe. "When I told him that he'd jumped the gun on a few of the murders, he smiled, and said something about this place acting differently."

"Acting differently than what?" Joe wondered aloud. "And what did he mean by 'this place'? Our squad room or Chicago?"

Starek gave a hopeless shrug. "He wouldn't say. It seemed like he was waiting for someone, some detective other than me. Maybe you'll have better luck."

Carrigan and Starek came to a stop in front of the informant, and Joe crossed his arms, staring at the man with open disapproval. "I hear you're being evasive," he accused the informant. Joe had been to some training where they told him he was supposed to be more sensitive, to lead witnesses and informants carefully and politely through the interview process. The trouble was, Joe had found that more than a few witnesses and informants were the perpetrators. He still kept his temper in check, but he didn't feel the need to coddle a potential criminal.

"We've too many cases on our desks to waste time with you," Joe challenged the informant. "So, unless you have something solid for us to follow up on..." Joe's voice trailed off as the informant looked up.

The informant seemed to see Joe for the first time. Of course, he must have seen the two detectives heading in his direction, but maybe he'd just seen the uniforms, rather than Joe's face. While Joe couldn't say he knew the informant, it was pretty clear that the informant knew him. The look that the informant was giving Joe now was uncomfortably familiar.

The informant smiled. "Joseph Caleb Matthew Carrigan," he intoned in a calm voice, and then addressed Starek. "I need to apologize. Gratefully, my estimation of the number of murders was inaccurate. There have only been six."

Joe felt anger rising in his chest. How the heck did this stranger know his full name, including the one he'd chosen at Confirmation? "Look, mister, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but--"

"My name is Michael," the informant replied evenly.

"And that's all I can get from him," Starek told Carrigan, not bothering to whisper. "The story about seven murders, and a first name. He claims not to have a surname."

"Come on," Joe complained, "everyone has a last name, even if it's just what town they're from. Where's his ID chip?"

"That's the other weird thing..." Starek admitted abashedly, "he doesn't have one."

You can introduce more than one character in a chapter, but make sure to differentiate them. In this chapter, Michael and Starek are different enough because Michael is being vague and infuriating, in addition to not being a cop. Detective Starek is described as being similar to Joe, but that's acceptable because there should be a certain rapport between them. Similarity helps toward that end.

Here is a writing prompt for expanding your first few chapters: Take a writing idea you have already been working on, and take a character you haven't introduced yet. Introduce the new character with dialogue and a progressing plot. If you can hide plot points inside characterization, such as my mention of Michael lacking an ID chip, then your audience will be more likely to read each paragraph carefully, looking for those hints.

Have fun, and keep writing!

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